Echoes of the Past in Boston Politics and Sports

By Peter F. Stevens
BIR Staff
Two Boston Irish names at the top of the 2013 mayoral ticket – What’s old in the city’s politics is new again. In a Boston whose demographics are shifting, the fact that the next mayor will be a man with Hibernian bloodlines has dismayed some in the media and some in the neighborhoods. It is an unfair swipe at both Marty Walsh and John Connolly. Both are smart and capable candidates who genuinely want to serve all residents.
Unlike days of yore, the once-vaunted “Boston Irish Machine” did not propel either man to the mayoral final. They emerged from the scramble to follow Tom Menino fair and square.

Demographics, however, are destiny. Menino broke the century-old Irish grip on the mayor’s office, serving longer than any mayor in the city’s history. So, too, some day, will a minority or ethnic candidate as well as a woman break through those barriers. History reveals that the local Irish did the same back 130 years ago, in 1884, and they did so because of demographics.
For nearly all of the 20th century, the Boston Irish had a stranglehold on the office of mayor. Not until Tom Menino followed Ray Flynn in the post was the near-monopoly of old sod descendants truly broken. Yes, a man named Walsh or Connolly will be the next Irish name in the post, and either might prove so popular that they will be returned to office – though matching Menino’s tenure poses a longshot for anyone. What is extremely unlikely is that the 2013 mayoral race is marking the resurrection of the “old-boyo” machine.
Back in 1884, demographics had tilted toward the Boston Irish, carrying the city’s first Irish mayor, Hugh O’Brien, into office. When he was sworn in on Jan. 5, 1885, his ascent represented a once unthinkable development in a region notable for its antipathy toward Irish Catholics. Boston’s changing electorate in the 21st century will similarly bring ethnic, racial, and gender change to City Hall.
During the same time that Hugh O’Brien was changing Boston politics forever, another Boston Irishman was changing the future of sports and celebrity. The incredible turnaround of the Red Sox this year and their fans’ exuberant bond with John Farrell’s bearded band testify to just how deeply ingrained sports are in and around Boston. We sometimes admire or even revere the athletes, sometimes scorn them, sometimes both. It can be rightly said that Boston, cradle of liberty and so much else, also gave birth to America’s first bonafide sports legend. Fittingly in many ways, this hero was Boston Irish to his literal core. His name was John L. Sullivan, aka “The Great John L.” and “The Boston Strong Boy.”
In reading the just-released Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero, by the local author and journalist Christopher Klein, I could not help but consider just how intertwined sports and society are.
The author of Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands: A Guide to the City’s Hidden Shores and The Die-Hard Sports Fan’s Guide to Boston, as well as a contributor to the Boston Globe, The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Harvard Magazine, Red Sox Magazine, ESPN, Smithsonian, and American Heritage, Klein has crafted a rollicking look at the life and career of Boston-bred Sullivan while also juxtaposing America’s first sports superstar and first Irish American sports hero against the ethnic, cultural, religious, and social history of Boston as the Irish began muscling their way into political power and beyond.
“I can lick any son-of-a-bitch in the world.” Those colorful words became Sullivan’s legendary mantra. For a time, he could, and did, back them up with his brutal fists. With them, he pounded his way out of Boston’s tenements, battered opponents as he bridged the bare-knuckled to gloved eras of boxing, and became the first athlete in America’s annals to earn a million dollars in a day when $1,000 a year was a good salary.
As with so many professional athletes then and now, Sullivan came out of hardscrabble beginnings. His parents, Michael and Catherine Kelly Sullivan, were “Famine Irish” who had fled the starvation and disease of the Great Hunger and settled in Boston. Klein writes: “…Michael and Catherine Sullivan lived in a cluster of tenements…off East Concord Street near the intersection of Washington Street…when they welcomed their first child into the world [in October 1858].” That child was John L. Sullivan, part of the immigrant tide that, according to the famed Minister Theodore Parker, was turning Boston into “the Dublin of America.”
Although Sullivan’s first love was baseball, his hands were meant for the ring, not the diamond nor the manual labor or trades that were the sole means of survival for so many young Boston Irishmen unless they had a way up and out through a combination of brains, ambition, and a dose of luck. In Sullivan’s case, his way out was his brutal punching power.
Klein’s fast-flowing prose is both compelling and erudite and offers a tour-de-force story of the boxer whose domination of the heavyweight ring was matched only by his larger-than-life drinking, womanizing, and “police-blotter” exploits that were “godsends to a burgeoning newspaper industry.”
Strong Boy (Globe Pequot Press) vividly renders both the incredible saga of America’s first superstar athlete and the saga of a Boston where local lad John L. Sullivan symbolized the way the Irish were muscling their way into power through the ballot box and, in his case, the national stage. The narrative gives readers ringside seats to the colorful tale of one of the country’s first Irish-American heroes, the birth of the American sports media, and the country’s celebrity obsession with athletes. In and around Boston, a look at the Irish roots of our sports obsessions seems apt with the Red Sox’s banner year under the guidance of a manager named Farrell.